Q&A with Naguib Mahfouz Biographer Raymond Stock: On the Author’s Life, Archives

This is a follow-up to 5 Thoughts from Raymond Stock on Translating the Master. Stock, who has been working on a biography of Naguib Mahfouz, expressed an interest in publishing today to air his knowledge about and connection with the contested Mahfouz archives. Note: Sotheby’s has withdrawn the Mahfouz materials from tomorrow’s auction. They issued this statement:

“While it is clear that Sotheby’s consignor had purchased the Mahfouz manuscripts from a member of Naguib Mahfouz’s family, other family members have within the last hour issued a challenge to that purchase. Sotheby’s takes title issues very seriously and has, accordingly, withdrawn the papers from sale until this is resolved.”

U.S. translator and Mahfouz biographer Raymond Stock

ArabLit: How will your biography be different from Rasheed El-Enany’s Naguib Mahfouz: His Life and Times? Are you looking at different questions? If there are some central questions about Mahfouz you’d like to answer, what are they?

Raymond Stock: My book will tell the story of Mahfouz’s life, with his works as important elements in it, though not as the main subject in themselves. Rasheed’s book, Naguib Mahfouz: His Life and Times-–which is a very important, expertly done work of literary history and criticism that fills a serious need—is primarily about Mahfouz’s fiction, while only briefly describing his life and times. His other books on Mahfouz, including Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning, ‘Alam Najib Mahfuz min khilal riwayatih, Najib Mahfuz: Qira’at ma bayna al-sutur, and Najib Mahfuz: hisad al-qawl, are also quite useful and extremely informative. I admire him enormously and consider him a friend. But there is as yet no actual full-length biography of Mahfouz available in any language. There are only books about his works that use limited biographical information as background. This includes Rasheed’s books cited above, plus dozens of others, of which by far the most impressive is Menahem Milson’s, Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo. Unlike all these works, mine will be closer to Virginia Woolf’s description of biography as “the novel of fact.”

I recently have discussed at length my personal experiences with Mahfouz in an interview by Michael C. Dunn, editor of The Middle East Journal, in his blog.

AL: El-Enany has argued that Mahfouz’s worthy later novels are relatively ignored by contemporary critics. You seem to feel that some of the most overlooked of Mahfouz’s works are his pharaonic-inspired works. Or are they more of a personal interest?

RS: Mahfouz’s pharaonic stories, in my view, are some of his most interesting, enjoyable and under-rated, even if some of them are not necessarily his absolute best from a purely literary point of view. Yet they are all certainly a great deal more worthy than the longstanding critical consensus would have you believe. The early pharaonic triad—Khufu’s Wisdom, Rhadopis of Nubia and Thebes at War—are actually rather sophisticated early experiments in modern Arabic allegory, despite their ancient setting. They also display a marked lyricism likewise found in the five stories of Voices from the Other World: Ancient Egyptian Tales, which were written in the same period (the 1930s and ’40s). Before the Throne, I think, is an historical tour de force and a model of extreme concision to boot, covering five thousand years of history with just enough detail to reach the heart of the matter in about one hundred and fifty pages. And Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth is a brilliant, Rashoman-like story about contemporary fundamentalism excavated from the controversial career of the heretic king. (Another work modeled on Rashoman is his novel, Miramar, that exposed the corruption in the Nasser regime. just before the disastrous defeat of June 1967.) Yet I think Rasheed is right that some of Mahfouz’s later novels, such as The Harafish and Arabian Nights and Days are really extraordinary achievements (they among were the author’s own top favorites), though we might have a slightly different list overall. Crucially, I see The Coffeehouse as a remarkable, highly condensed piece of historical fiction masked as nostalgia, agreeing with a really wonderful review of it by Andre Naffis-Sahely in Banipal. (And I owe him particular thanks for his kind recognition for yours truly, though we have never been in touch personally.) But I believe Mahfouz’s greatest work, both in sheer inventiveness and in his conquest of personal infirmity in extreme old age, is the Dreams series.

AL: Edward Said complained (in “The Cruelty of Memory”) about some of the English-language translations of Naguib Mahfouz; Denys Johnson-Davies has made much softer complaints on the same topic. This year saw the first re-translation of one of Mahfouz’s novels (Midaq Alley, by Humphrey Davies). Do you think (some of) his works deserve re-translation, for one reason or another?

RS: This is a sensitive topic among the still-small (if growing) tribe of Arabic-English translators. On the whole, I can’t think of any of Mahfouz’s works that I would demand to see wholly re-translated, though a number could use significant revision and/or re-editing. Everyone directly concerned knows which ones they are–as well as many readers, of course. There are others which plainly don’t need this treatment, however. For example, I have seen the idea of re-translating William M. Hutchins’ rendition of The Cairo Trilogy discussed in your blog. That would be a mistake, in my view. To me, it is superb, despite what some critics have said about it. Once I was asked to verify the accuracy of a passage in Palace Walk by the editors at National Geographic Magazine, for a story on Cairo in which it would be quoted. I went over it word by word, and found it outstanding, precisely faithful to the original, both in letter and in spirit–as I reported to the editors. That is what I have always thought of this work a whole–it needs neither re-translation nor revision, in my view. I have the same opinion of all of Bill’s translations.

AL: Mahfouz seems to have been nearly universally regarded as a kind, modest, affable and good human being who was also wonderfully disciplined. What else would you say, based on your research for the Mahfouz biography?

RS: There’s a lot I’d like to tell you, but most of that I will have to save for the moment, I’m afraid. Naguib Bey was indeed perhaps the kindest, most affable, most benign, most tolerant–and also one of the most unwaveringly productive–human beings one could ever hope to meet, a unique blend of basata (openness) and indibat (discipline). I’ve always said that he dealt with people like an Egyptian, and time like a German. One thing I can note here, however, is about the actual date of his birth. Among the earliest original findings in my research–based on his official birth record in the appropriately-named Dar al-Mahfuzat at the Cairo Citadel–is that, rather than being born on December 11, 1911 as he had always thought, it actually happened on December 10 of that year, at 2:00 am–though it was registered on the 11th, hence the confusion. This was fifteen years to the hour after Alfred Nobel’s fatal stroke in San Remo in 1896: the awards in his name are given out in Stockholm and Oslo on this anniversary. Of course, though I informed Mahfouz of this finding, after so many years of his birthday being celebrated on December 11, he did not feel like changing it. Yet the correct date (and hour) has poetic symbolism, nonetheless.

AL: One of the markers of Mahfouz’s style is its retention of literary register (fos7a) but its closeness to colloquial. (Yusuf al-Qaid characterized this as literary Arabic that responds “to the rhythms of language as it is used.”) How do you think this aspect of Mahfouz’s style can be best conveyed in English?

RS: Naguib Mahfouz is rightly credited with inventing the so-called “third language,” especially in his creation of dialogue featuring (fos7a) words that are also found in colloquial (if with differing grammar or somewhat variant form). He actually called the use of colloquial in literature a “disease,” because he felt it would gut the Arabic literary language’s ability to be understood across national boundaries. He did not want to write only for Egyptians. And yet Egypt and Egyptians were his natural frame of reference, and he wrote as he spoke (or as close to it as possible), without sacrificing the universal intelligibility among Arabic readers for which he cared so much. There is a much greater number of dialect words in the Dreams, incidentally, though it is still overwhelmingly (fos7a). Only one of his works, yet unpublished in English (though I have done a rough translation of it), called The Songs (al-Aghani, a short work published in a magazine in 1999—his first after the stabbing, which partially paralyzed his right arm and hand), is entirely in ‘ammiya, and wholly made up of quotations from popular songs from the various phases of his long life. Thus it is even more unclassifiable than his Dreams.

AL: El-Enany writes that he’s encountered problems with some of the Mahfouz translations which he thinks are “symptomatic of the big majority of translations of Arabic fiction into English.” These, he says, include difficulties in translating dialect and colloquialisms, and in conveying the “religious register” of Arabic conversation. Do you pinpoint any particular difficulties in the translation of Mahfouz into English?

RS: In narrative as well as dialogue, Mahfouz personally developed the modern Arabic prose language that we take for granted today, replacing the almost Qur’anic mode of earlier periods, still in use when he began to write fiction. Translating Voices from the Other World and Khufu’s Wisdom was difficult at times because of their archaic tone and frequent quotations from the Qur’an But thanks to his huge vocabulary, it never really gets easier despite his progressively more modern style. The two Dreams volumes were especially difficult because, with the loss of his eyesight, he could no longer redact his own writing (and later, dictation), and there were many mistakes in the published work as a result.

AL: When he was alive, I assume you consulted with Mahfouz while translating? Has his death changed the translation process?

RS: Only once did I ask Mahfouz a linguistic question, one I could easily have answered myself because it was so obvious, if I had only been thinking at the moment it came up. Not that I never needed help, but he was simply not physically able, due to poor eyesight and hearing, to provide it, by the time I began translating his works in the early 1990s. (I had known him since March 1990, through my job then as Acquisitions Editor at the AUC Press, and began work on his biography on contract with Farrar, Straus & Giroux less than a year after leaving the AUCP, in February 1992. After having turned me down once while I was still negotiating the contract with FSG, he immediately, and very kindly and bravely, offered his cooperation after I had secured it, and continued to work with me until his passing in August 2006. But I very, very often consulted him about places and people mentioned in the stories I was translating. This in fact, became a very rich source for biographical information, though my determined insistence on nailing down every detail was a bit hard on him. When I occasionally have had trouble with the Arabic itself, I have asked others for help, including such outstanding linguists as Hazem Azmy and Ahmed Seddik, among others. One of my greatest refuges in this regard was my late housekeeper for twenty years, al-Hagg Husayn Ukasha, a wonderful human being and friend, who sadly passed away last March. Though a complete auto-didact, as a salt of the earth Egyptian from Bab al-Khalq (near Naguib’s native Gamaliya), he could well have been Mahfouz’s ideal reader. His death changes many things, least of all the task of translation.

AL: How did you celebrate Mahfouz’s 100th birthday?

RS: Mainly by watching old videos of him and reading the things posted by others about it on Facebook and on the web. I very much regret that I was not able to get back to Egypt–a place I deeply love and of which I feel a part–in time for his centenary. As you know, I was barred from entering the country at Cairo Airport last December 9/10, when I was held overnight, then deported back to the U.S., after having lived there for two decades prior to my departure to teach at Drew University the previous August, on unspecified grounds of “national security.” This was apparently due to an article I wrote for Foreign Policy Magazine in August 2009, critiquing then-Culture Minister Farouk Hosni’s later-failed bid to head UNESCO. At the time I was planning to attend the annual Naguib Mahfouz Award in Literature ceremony at the AUC on December 11, and to give a lecture on Mahfouz at the British Ambassador’s residence on December 19–but, of course, could make neither. You kindly noted my absence at the AUC event in your blog. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo (along with, for a while, their British counterpart) as well as the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C., have tried very hard to get the ban against me lifted, for which I am grateful. Yet they remain unable even to confirm if I am still blacklisted, or even if the blacklist still exists.

AL: What do you know about the auction of Mahfouz manuscripts, now scheduled to take place at Sotheby’s in London on December 15? Many are dismayed about the sale.

RS: And I am one of those people myself—to me, this sale is a travesty. Though I cannot now confirm the provenance of the material in the archive, the man behind the sale is apparently a rare books collector. Based in New York, the collector is a reputable figure who has acquired and sold the private papers, etc. of a number of other important literary figures…. For two-to-three years or perhaps longer, he used the services of an American author who has written about Mahfouz and was also among his friends and mine (but who wishes to remain anonymous here) to track down any existing manuscripts and other private papers in Egypt and beyond, pertaining to Mahfouz. Though I understand that the book dealer paid the travel expenses, he did not provide a salary–this was really a labor of love, by a person who did not need the money to live. The goal, I was informed dealer promised my friend–and this cannot be stressed enough–was to create a single, unified, integral Mahfouz collection that would be sold only to a major research library in America, where it would be safely housed, with guaranteed access for scholars. (My friend also wanted to see the proceeds used to endow a chair in Arabic literature at the same university, whichever it might turn out to be.)

In early 2009, this individual contacted me in Cairo to seek my help with the project, which was already far advanced—indeed, I was told they were already negotiating with Mahfouz’s widow, Atiyatallah Ibrahim Rizq, for possession of two complete novel manuscripts, Miramar and al-Shahhadh (The Beggar), both of which Mahfouz’s daughters gave me to photocopy when they discovered them, apparently forgotten, in a box under his bed, in 1992. (I did indeed copy them and returned the originals completely intact, as promised, along with a great many other items they had provided, which I also urged The Library of Congress to buy at that time in hopes that they would create just the sort of archive that the dealer allegedly had in mind more recently. I am further told that the deal for the novels later fell through.) At first I was suspicious—not of my friend, but of the dealer, who made no secret that he was doing this for profit. But after extensive discussions, I agreed to provide information, though at the beginning this was very limited, as I sought assurance that the book dealer was both serious and trustworthy with regard to the ultimate purpose of the project. Moreover, I was also encouraged to propose to the book dealer that he hire me to spend a year in Cairo, in the search for Mahfouz’s papers—something I had been doing myself, as his biographer, for many years (as noted above). This I did, eventually providing potential leads for the investigation in the process, as well as confirm much of the information they had already gathered. But in the event, the book dealer did not agree to hire me, and finally I stopped cooperating with the project. But before I did so, I was shown a letter that the book dealer had received from Harvard, expressing the university’s strong interest in any opportunity to purchase a collection of Mahfouz’s papers and manuscripts from him. That, as far as I knew then, proved at least that this book dealer was sincere about what he really intended to do with this archive, and so I felt reassured that my previous aid to him, and that of my friend, was at least in a good cause. Sadly, this turns out not to have been the case. Far from it, in fact.

I recently learned of the Sotheby’s auction from a friend in Cairo who happens to be on their mailing list, and had received an invitation to it. Such sales are indeed rare–compared to most authors of comparable stature, Mahfouz has left only a faint and ephemeral paper trail behind him, making this event all the more important. Immediately I contacted the friend that had been working with the book dealer, who confirmed that he indeed had supplied the archive that is being offered. This person has told me that they first learned of it from a conversation with the book dealer between two and three weeks ago. When asked how things then stood with the project, he is said to have dropped the bombshell that the relatively small collection he had gathered would be sold as a single lot (with a proviso that it not be sold piecemeal), at Sotheby’s. Even with that crucial stipulation, this is clearly not what my friend–or I (who played a much smaller role in the effort)–ever had in mind. Rather, it was precisely the opposite of what we had intended, and what we had been led to believe would be the final result. Though the book dealer (whom I have not yet contacted about this deal) is probably only doing this to defray his undoubtedly large expenses in gathering the archive, we are both quite shocked by his move, in fact, and hope that the sale can be stopped in time. Despite the objections of many experts as well as admirers of Mahfouz, and even, apparently, the Egyptian ambassador–as you have reported yesterday–the auction seems to be proceeding as advertised.

If it is not stopped, our only hope is that a high-caliber Western university or library (such as the Warburg Library in London, for example) will step forward at the auction with the determination to be the highest bidder, and so save this archive from an otherwise unknown fate in the hands of a private collector. My greatest fear is that someone who either has no serious knowledge of the subject or commitment to preserving these rare treasures as a single unit will later sell the items individually, whether or not there is a legal contract with the book dealer forbidding such a move. Once again, given the scarcity of original, private documents directly connected to Mahfouz, this small collection is all the more precious. It will certainly be worth far more than its estimated value of 50,000 to 70,000 pounds sterling, not only to Mahfouz’s legacy, but to that of Arab (and indeed world) culture as a whole.

Editor’s note: I am following up with the book dealer. My apologies for the lack of clarity as this progresses.